There are many ways to not write a symphony, but in my experience, it’s best to acknowledge that no one actually knows how to write a symphony. So when it happens, it is a miracle. For some of us, (Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms) it is a miracle of the first order, much like the birth of a child, winning the lottery, or waking from a 15-year coma. But it’s best not to harp on it.
Here are the ten best ways not to write a symphony:
1. Decide that you want to write a symphony
The urge to write a symphony seems like the obvious first step, but it is actually the first step towards not writing one. Pretty much anyone who has seen the film Amadeus walked out with the fantasy to write a symphony — but how many actually do? The dream of writing a symphony is so common that you probably don’t want to write one anymore, which may be a good thing, but we’ll never know.
2. Take a composition class
In a music school, you will be surrounded by all kinds of people — some writing symphonies, some talking about symphonies. All of them can hurt your progress by passing on their creative frustrations, and weird insecurities. “Sometimes the notes just don’t come,” you confess to your composition teacher (who’s also not writing a symphony). He will pat you on the shoulder with sympathy and send you home to analyze Bartók.
3. Read a book about orchestration
By reading a book about orchestration, you are both reaffirming your burning desire to write a symphony, and avoiding to write one at the same time. Any orchestration tome will provide you with plenty of good advice, but because it demonstrates what has already been done, you’ll ignore most of it. After spending two weeks scrambling your brain about string divisi and harp pedaling, you’ll decide not to write a symphony after all, and write a piece for theremin and organ instead. This requires buying a theremin kit on eBay — and learning to play it, which will delay writing your symphony for at least a year.
4. Keep a notebook
Keeping a notebook (a moleskin, likely) to plot out your symphony during the planning stages is a great way to resolve many of the creative and technical issues that will need to be solved along the way. But this can quickly become an obsession, and the possibilities swirling around your head will leave you with a terminal case of option paralysis — a neologism well-known to obsessive types alike. The result? A notebook full of ideas for a symphony, but no symphony.
5. Decide to write an opera instead
Another way not to write a symphony is to decide to write an opera instead. They are both large in scope, but an opera is much more difficult to write. With a symphony, you can compose a few movements and get on with your life. But for an opera, you will spend 20 weeks scoring, followed by another 20 weeks obsessing about Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey paradigm, and how you can make it work with a $5,000 budget. As the paralyzing feeling of deadlines crushes your dreams, you will spend your nights in bed with a water bottle, binge-watching episodes of Mozart in the Jungle (RIP) and lamenting about not writing a symphony.
6. Buy a notation software program
Buying a good notation program is a good start towards writing a symphony, but various technical mysteries will arise and stop you from writing a symphony. This is the cruel irony of notation programs. After waiting days to get help from tech gurus on internet forums to surpass seemingly insurmountable technical issues about how to beam across measures, the inspiration for your symphony will float out the window. It will land in another composer’s lap; someone who actually took the time to read the manual. (N.B.: reading the manual will also prevent you from writing a symphony — you can’t win!)
7. Facebook lurking, disease-Googling, and food porn
The Internet is a glorious abyss that will time-suck your life away. After spending the morning lurking your ex on Facebook, Googling the new mole you’ve found on the bottom your foot, and admiring the humongous size of Rachmaninoff’s hands from archival footage of him playing on YouTube, half the day is already spent. You’ll then give up, and use the rest of the afternoon searching for a perfect low-carb pancake recipe. The Web is the best place to spend your time not writing a symphony.
8. The “nothing new under the sun” excuse
A really good way to get started not writing a symphony is to realize that everything has been done already and that by the time you get a great idea, someone else has already beat you to it. Just walk into any university music library and take a look around. One of the hundred composers writing the symphony that you haven’t started yet has been pen pals with Simon Rattle for two years — and there you are, holding your own against the insurmountable odds of influence.
9. Tell someone else what they need to do to start writing a symphony
Tell a friend they should totally write a symphony, and give them all sorts of advice on where to start. Once they start, have them show you what they have come up with, and with seemingly selfless encouragement, tell them to “Keep at it. It’s getting close!” All the while, you keep your non-symphony in the back of your head, and vicariously live through your friend.
10. Award speech fantasy
Fantasizing about giving a witty yet humble Pulitzer Prize for Music acceptance speech, or sitting down for an intimate conversation with Alex Ross for your feature in the New Yorker, are both products of a creative mind, but neither requires that you write anything. If you’ve ever seen the film, King of Comedy about Rupert Pupkin (played by De Niro), you’ll know what happens when your imagination does all the heavy lifting. While it’s fun to imagine all the faces of those who did not recognize your genius, you still haven’t written a symphony.